Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Growing up Livingston: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 9

Little Peggy was no longer a baby, but a little girl, growing up in one of the most wealthy and notable households in the northern United States. In December of 1785, while her mother Nancy was attempting to rouse herself from a crushing depression, Peggy was turning four years old (at right, a contemporary portrait by English artist Arthur Devis).


Despite being far from her mother and caught in the center of dreadful custody battle, Peggy was surrounded by caring adults in the home of her grandmother. By this time, Margaret Beekman Livingston was 61-year-old widow with an empty nest. The sparkling face of a little grand daughter might have been just what she needed by her side. She doted on the girl a good bit, calling her "so beloved a Child," and often complimented her to others. "The old Lady supposes her to be a prodigy of good sense," wrote Nancy's brother Tommy once.


By all accounts, the Livingston household was a loving one in which to grow up. When Tommy visited Peggy at her grandmother's house in New York City, he decsribed a visit in which all love and attention was focused on the beloved little girl.

..she seated herself very much at ease on my lap & held up her little ruby lips, as often as I wished to kess them, which was every minute...the old Lady [Margaret Beekman Livingston] could not keep her hands off her, but almost smothered her with kisses.


She was the darling of all who visited the household, trotted out to charm the Bon Mond of eighteenth-century New York (now also the capital of the new nation). But during these visits Peggy was also learning the social skills which were expected to aid her in adulthood. She was escorted into the parlour for polite visits, where she was allowed to play on the floor, talk to the adults, and climb into their laps. Here she began learning polite language and manners, as in Tommy's description from the same 1785 letter:


She takes the round two or three time in the Evening to dispense her Curtesys [curtsies] and her kisses to all her uncles and aunts, whom she mentions by name before she makes her curtesy...


With grown-up assistance, the little girl even got to hold her very own tea party, inviting "20 young misses" "by card 3 days before." The party was lavish, thrown by her mother Nancy when Peggy was given leave to spend the winter and spring of 1787 in Philadelphia (surely a great excitement for both mother and daughter!).


Sewing and needlework were more skills that Peggy needed to learn. Although often taught at girls' schools, it is likely she would have practised her skills at home alongside her female family members. Peggy's mother also regularly recorded working on decorative needlework, including tambor so she would have seen adults around her doing similar work. Peggy was starting with more basic work however. "Ask her to show you her pocket [handkercheif] which she has hemmed [be] Surpris[ed] how well it is done," wrote her grandmother Margaret.

Peggy had long shown an appreciation for music, something near and dear to the hearts of the eighteenth century wealthy, and now she was learning to take part. She "sings 6 songs," wrote Dr. Shippen of his grandaughter, accompanied by the household piano forte. At just five years old, this was a good accomlishment! In addition to personal pleasure, when Peggy got bigger singing at social gatherings could entertain friends and gain the ear of a sensible gentleman, a scene often played out in Jane Austen's novels in the years ahead. Music was considered an appropriate outlet for women as well as men, and Peggy's cousins, Besty and Margaret Maria Livingston were both to study music in the years to come as well.


Dancing, another vital social skill during the period, had also been part of her education. In April, at her tea party, she "danced a cotillion well," and later we hear that "Miss Binghamton & Miss Livingston ...have been dancing minuets & Cotillions..." on March 17th.

Her education also included more formal studies. "Peggy was perfectly well at school," reported Nancy's uncle. A variety of schools were available to wealthy girls at this point, but Peggy was most likely learning at least reading and religion. When sending the little girl off to her mother late in 1786, Margaret Beekman Livingston wrote, "Her book do not suffer her to neglect" when describing the importance of her studies in a list of instructions. (See the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the full Peale portrait and credits)

It is not documented, but it is likely, that Peggy sometimes had her cousins for playmates when she was with her grandmother. The Chancellor's daughters Betsy and Margaret Maria were a year older and two years younger, respectively. Although the Chancellor and his wife did not rebuild their home at Clermont until the 1790s, their visits to his mother would have brought the girls together. It is also possible that Harriet Livingston (eventually to become Fulton) was sometimes with the party, as there is one reference to her being in the care of Chancellor Livingston for a time. In Philadelphia, her mother's shining social connections wouldhave provided her with a wealth of girls her own age (think of those 20 tea party guests!) to play with as well.

All of this was to the good, but the fact remained that here was that here was a little girl, caught in between fueding parents, and shuttled from guardian to guardian at various points of the year. She was occassionally visited by her father, whom nobody seemed to like or trust anymore because of his frightening behavior. And for half the year she knew her mother only through letters and presents. Most people seemed to view her situation with pity and indulge her perhaps more than was healthy.


It was soon worked out that Peggy would spend summers with her grandmother Margaret Beekman Livingston at Clermont and winters with her mother in Philadelphia. In between, she was passed from person to person. "Your Daughter shall [be home] on Sat under the care of her Uncle Tillotson & my Dinah who is very careful & tender of her," wrote Margaret in 1786," and then from her Uncle Lee, "Our dear little Peggy is expected hourly with her Aunt Montgomery & Mrs. Lee will speedily bring her next week."

So what was life like for little Peggy? It was full of opportunities. She had access to good education, the people with the best connections, and the lively parties that would prepare her for her future. It was full of life's luxuries, doll's from France, a pet dog, and music from harps, harpsichords, and piano fortes.

But it was also confusing. Her parents were warring. Her father was pretty well cast out of the family. Her mother was emotionally distraught. She went from guardian to guardian and home to home. That her large family universally showered her with love may have helped to distract her from this fact, but without continuity, she did get a bit unruly. Children are both fragile and resilient, and if nothing else she grew up knowing that she belonged to an important class of people. She grew up surrounded by the bon mond, as Nancy's friend called it, the "good world," where there was much to see and much to learn.

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